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Gov. Jerry Brown toughens sanctions for cellphones in prison

Reporting from Sacramento -- California prison inmates caught with cellphones will face more time behind bars, and those smuggling the devices in from outside could also be locked up, under a measure signed Thursday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

He also required health insurers to cover maternity services, mandated that state regulations be made more business-friendly and eliminated fingerprinting of food stamp recipients.

The cellphone measure, one of more than 30 bills Brown approved, follows a proliferation of mobile devices found with state prisoners. About 10,700 of the phones were confiscated in state prisons last year; offenders included mass murderer Charles Manson.

The new law will take away up to 90 days of good-behavior credits from convicts caught with the devices. Visitors and prison employees found trying to smuggle them into prison face misdemeanor charges with penalties of up to six months in jail and fines of $5,000 for each one confiscated.

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“When criminals in prison get possession of a cellphone, it subverts the very purpose of incarceration,” Brown said. “They use these phones to organize gang activity, intimidate witnesses and commit crimes. Today’s action will help to break up an expanding criminal network and protect law-abiding Californians.”

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), who introduced the proposal, SB 26, predicted the new law would be “a significant deterrent for people thinking about smuggling phones in.”

Brown also signed an executive order Thursday mobilizing prison officials to try to stop the inflow of phones. He called for more searches to collect phones already in prisoners’ hands and for acceleration of a plan to jam unauthorized phone calls.

The governor also ordered corrections officials to examine the possible use of metal detectors to screen those entering the lockups.

Several of Brown’s actions Thursday were intended to increase participation in programs to feed the poorest residents.

Brown did away with the requirement that food stamp recipients be fingerprinted after questions were raised about the cost of the practice and its effectiveness in preventing fraud. Starting Jan. 1, the Statewide Finger Imaging System will end for the 3.8 million Californians participating in the federally funded food stamp program, called CalFresh.

Only about half of eligible Californians receive CalFresh benefits, according to Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar), the author of AB 6.

Brown agrees with the determination of most other states that “fingerprints are not a necessary component of this program,” said spokesman Evan Westrup. “Our state lags far behind the rest of the country in utilizing federal food assistance funding, and this common-sense bill will help ensure California families don’t go hungry.”

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The change is opposed by most Republican state legislators, including Sen. Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo. “To me, it’s the height of irresponsibility to eliminate protections against fraud when we are laying off teachers and running record budget deficits,” Blakeslee said in an interview.

The state spends about $15 million a year on the fingerprinting system. Department of Social Services officials estimate that it has avoided $60 million in fraudulent welfare payments, based on an extrapolation of a study done by Los Angeles County.

Others cited a report by the state auditor questioning the accuracy of the savings claims and the validity of applying a county study to a statewide program. Fuentes said California has other anti-fraud measures in place.

Counties will be allowed to use Social Security Administration records to identify and enroll senior citizens who are eligible for CalFresh benefits under another newly signed law, AB 69 by Assemblyman James Beall Jr. (D-San Jose).

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New mothers will benefit from some of the legislation Brown signed Thursday. Employers are required to maintain and pay for health coverage while women are on maternity leave, under SB 299 by Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa). And every individual and group health insurance policy must include maternity services starting July 1, 2012, under SB 222 by Evans and AB 210 by Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina).

“I want the next generation of Californians to get the best possible start in life,” the governor said in a statement.

Brown also agreed to require state agencies, when revising regulations, to do so in ways that are least burdensome and most cost-effective for businesses.

SB 617 by Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) was hailed by California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg, who said it “sends an important message to job creators that California is taking steps to improve our regulatory climate.”

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That law takes effect in 2013.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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